With a golden opportunity to grab a win, clinch a playoff spot, and keep the rest of the East at bay, it seemed extremely far fetched they could have any hope of accomplishing any of those things given how poorly the Indiana Pacers began the night. It was just way too difficult to imagine the Pacers exploding offensively when they had just 18 points on 19% shooting halfway through the second quarter. The Pacers were in prime form, reminiscent of recent years when they could barely hit a layup, much less run a functioning offense. Bad passes, bad shots, terrible turnovers; it all amassed into 17 of the ugliest minutes of basketball the Pacers have played all year. Fortunately, despite the heavy struggles on offense, they were able to keep the game close (and occasionally lead) thanks to a solid defensive effort, including some vicious blocks by Roy Hibbert to keep the game close as both teams combined for 12-44 in the first quarter.
Even good defense will only get a team so far if they struggle as much on offense as the Pacers did, and the Cavaliers, led by their second unit, began to find theirs, slowly inching their three point first quarter lead upwards to 14 points as the Indiana Pacers fell to 6-31 shooting. At their lowest point, the starters entered the game with a different focus, led by George Hill, as they turned a 19% shooting performance in to a 62% effort to close the quarter, cutting the Cleveland lead to two at the half.
It'd been a while since the Pacers had really come out like gangbusters in the third quarter, building on their run to end the second to rattle off a 17-2 run, holding Cleveland to those two points in the first half of the third to get the game to the 8-point lead. Though they struggled to get past that on Wednesday, Danny Granger made it a point to not let the Cavs hang around, getting the game to double digits before Tyler Hansbrough went off, scoring 9 in a 90 second stretch to put the game well out of reach at 20 points, as the Pacers blew the game wide open on a 34-13 third quarter.
The Pacers were able to roll through the fourth quarter, resting their starters, and moving forward to grab a win and more importantly, become the fifth team in the NBA to clinch a playoff spot. What started as a sickening exhibition in primitive basketball offense turned into another 100-point effort from the blue and gold and the debut of Kyrylo Fesenko, as the Pacers move their win total to 37, the same number it took a full 82 games to reach just a year ago.
After the jump, full board of contributions:
- Danny Granger had a slow start, as did everyone, but as the team struggled, he was part of the effort the starters had defensively to at least cloud the poor offense. His 9 points in the third quarter were class; well timed and important points to step on the necks of a Cavaliers team that had been a thorn in the Pacers side in all three of the matchups leading up to tonight's. With awards season heating up, here's a question: might a strong close to the month put Danny in the discussion for All NBA Third-Team in a year where most of the top players were just as inconsistent as Danny? The Pacers do currently own the fifth best record in the league pending the outcome of Denver/Lakers tonight. How about some nod to that accomplishment?
- George Hill was key in the second quarter to finally moving the offense beyond guys moving around at will, and keyed their turnaround, to have all 15 of his points at halftime. While the case can made with his 7 assists that he really works well with the starting unit, it's more that he, when he plays well, is a far bigger asset to the bench. It's no knock to suggest that of Hill, but the second unit came in for a starting lineup that couldn't hit the ocean and continued to stink it up. A.J. Price hasn't shown anything since the first game he returned, and Darren Collison still doesn't have the kind of offensive knack Hill has. Hill's spot in the starting lineup may give the Pacers their five best players on the floor, but it's still up in the air if it actually makes them a truly better team.
- Leandro Barbosa continues to be a huge X-factor for the Pacers off the bench. Indiana moves to 12-4 since their acquisition of him, and they move to 7-0 when he reaches double figure scoring. Barbosa hasn't shown to be a consistent weapon off of the bench, but it's hard to argue how important he's been in games he's played well. When the Cavs fought to keep their chances alive, it was Barbosa who helped lay the hammer down and close the game out with force.
- As mentioned, the big (really really really big) fella Kyrylo Fesenko made his Pacers debut following a Loudicrously Loupendous effort from Lou Amundson, fouling out with 6 points and 9 boards, allowing Fesenko to dwarf every player on the court with his sheer mass. He proved to be curiously quick for his size, though in such short minutes, well into garbage time, it's hard to make any strong cases. It certainly doesn't hurt to have someone as big as he is to clog the middle.
So the Pacers win puts them back into the NBA Playoffs for the second straight year. Unlike last year, however, the Pacers aren't just fighting to get in, they're fighting for position. They move to 37-22 on the year, but more importantly, them winning keeps the rest of their pursuers at bay. It was a busy night for the East, with 8 of the 9 teams in playoff contention taking the court.
The fourth seeded Celtics took on a rough loss to Toronto in Canada following an 11-point third quarter, while the Philadelphia 76ers blew a golden opportunity against the Nets as New York dismantled Washington. It leaves Boston three up in the division for the third seed, but with Philly's struggles, it could make an interesting case for the New York Knicks to continue moving up, as they currently sit in 7th.
The Knicks are three games behind the Orlando Magic after tonight. Orlando took it on the chin against Atlanta, who themselves sit just two games back of Indiana for the third seed. There is still plenty of jostling left to shake out the order of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, but a struggling Magic team now having to deal with a Dwight Howard herniated disk, could be in danger of losing the sixth spot to the New York Knicks, a matchup the Pacers would be well advised to avoid if at all possible.
Orlando sits three up with seven to go, the only real advantage they could have if Howard misses significant time being something of a tough schedule for New York to close the year. In the meantime, Indiana moves to a league best 7-1 in the month of April, as the hottest team in the NBA Boston Celtics drop to 5-3. All coverage is not created equal, it would seem, but now's not the time to feel slighted at the lack of interest; the Pacers have a game tomorrow night against the Bucks, every win drawing them closer to holding onto the third seed as the Pacers inch closer to the second season.